“Calm yourself, Barrier,” Luna counseled quietly. “Our magic is a far different creature than your own. You should know by now that you cannot force the moon to do your bidding. You must coax it.”
Barrier clenched his eyes shut even tighter, and his grunts drowned out the softly delivered advice of the princess.
“Barrier!” Luna stated more firmly on her second attempt. “Breathe! This is not something you can brute force.”
“Easy for you to say,” Barrier managed to spit out. “Your magic shits my best day in bleed-off every morning.” Barrier fell silent once more as the moon seemed to move a thin crescent’s width. The sound of a snap rang out across the field and Barrier fell back onto his flank after the spellcast ruptured. “Sweet Faust above!” Barrier hissed and moved to touch his horn, wincing when he felt the heat radiating off the temporarily fire-white spear of bone.
Luna pursed her lips before settling upon a sympathetic smile. The arches of her face crafted a gaze drenched in concern, and her cascading mane appeared to dim its twinkles out of respect for Barrier’s strife.
“I don’t know, Luna. I don’t think our magics are going to be compatible.” Barrier pressed a hoof to his temple in an attempt to calm a pounding headache that had set in.
“Patience, Barrier. This is only the second lesson. Foals do not learn to gallop in a day.”
“I’m not a foal, and this is hardly learning to gallop. I’m trying to manipulate magic that isn’t my own.”
“Semantics.” Luna’s own horn lit up and with a simple flourish of her head, the moon began its slow descent. “I have to ask, however.” Luna offered a hoof to the unicorn, which he gratefully took as he hefted himself upright. “Why now? You were quite adamant when we first returned to Equestria that training under me was unnecessary.”
“A recent event has made me worry about my reflexes,” Barrier answered flatly. “Under different circumstances, I would be inclined to not care. I can control my magic, and the output is still effective, but…”
“But you feel as though my magic is creeping across the residual bond?” Luna interrupted the encroaching quiet.
“Yeah. And that makes any reflex action dangerous. Nothing happened this time around, but there are too many what-ifs. A spike in my adrenaline could create something disastrous. Your magic could be tapped at any time, and that result…” Barrier rubbed his stiff neck.
Luna shuddered at the notion. “I understand. I’m glad you decided to take me up on the lessons. And worry not about your perceived failure this morning. We have plenty of time for you to learn.”
“It’s hard not to worry. Your unbridled power still keeps me up at night.”
The princess recoiled again when the last three words drilled into her ears. “Barrier, I should have done more. I—”
“You don’t have to keep apologizing, Lulu. It’s not a good use of time, not anymore. In any case, you should get out of here. My cadets are due any moment, and this isn’t something that should be seen.”
Luna’s composure rapidly changed. The sorrow that had gripped her countenance washed away as her sightline drifted from Barrier. “It may be a bit late for that,” she commented. A sheepish smirk parted her muzzle as she motioned to the pegasus watching them from a distance.
“Faust above, just what I needed.” The captain’s plot hit the grass. He grunted, squinted, and clutched his head again as the burning glow of his horn began to pulse.
Tail sprang forward the instant she observed the spectacle. Her training—and the day of rest—had undoubtedly benefited the mare in the speed category. She rapidly drew close to Barrier until her nose hovered mere inches from the tip of his magical appendage.
The stallion opened an eye and glared at the body of the pegasus, for her subsequent tapping upon the crunching grass not only made his coat bristle with agitation but matched the rate of his throbbing headache as well.
“You’re doing it wrong,” she whispered, her head turning briefly towards Luna.
“What was that, Cadet?” Barrier spat. He lurched and wheezed amidst the painful, defensive tempest—a fuming maneuver that prompted Tail to take a step back.
She began lightly pawing the ground in response to his snarling retort. “I’m sorry, sir,” she squeaked out in a diffident tone. “It’s just that I…” The pegasus bit down on her cheek and allowed her gaze to wander over the field.
“Go on, Ms. Tail. He’ll regain his wits soon enough, and I am interested to hear what you have to say on this subject,” the princess chimed in—elegantly pacifying Barrier’s simmering displeasure while returning Tail to a more confident path.
He can’t be your friend yet, Tail reassured herself with Amora’s logic, but I have to be me. She swallowed, set her sights on the captain, and continued, “I’m sorry for being out of line, but this is a subject that I do know. You are doing it wrong, sir.”
The words had dripped from her muzzle in a tone that was unusually gentle for a cadet bold enough to call out her commanding officer. She gradually pulled Barrier’s armored foreleg from his head and brought her plated hoof to rest against the metal surface.
“You’re trying to force yourself to reach a level you can’t hit. Princess Luna’s magic has a naturally higher energy, and you can’t match the associated pulse—as evidenced by the glow on your horn. Trying to match it”—she hesitated as her mind scrambled to find the perfect analogy—“is like a stupid filly trying to force her way out of a hold when she could have just asked the expert how to do so.
“I think you should try this instead.” Tail began tapping the estimated frequency of Luna’s magic. “This is hers.” She then slowed down the rate. “And this is yours. Instead of trying to brute force your way to the princess’s level, you should make use of harmonics.”
The mare flicked her namesake when Barrier returned her statement with an utterly bewildered expression. “Right, sorry, nerd stuff. Umm, think of it like pushing a foal on a swing. Instead of pushing the kid each time the swing comes back, you push every other. Even though it’s less energetic overall, it’ll keep the process going. You’ll be able to get used to things without hurting yourself.”
The unicorn retracted his leg and spun away from the smaller mare. “I don’t recall giving you permission to speak, Cadet. And I certainly don’t recall giving you clearance to grant my trainees any privileges, Princess. Tail! Twenty-eight laps for butting into business that isn’t yours. Consider yourself lucky. I’m giving you a two-lap credit… for interesting advice and reminding me that I need to own your flank with submissions again.”
Barrier threw a sidelong glance at Tail. Her feathers ruffled when she found him peering into her eyes, and a slight redness developed on her muzzle. What are you searching for? she pondered as his pupils shifted to the telltale beat of analysis. Seconds ticked by while she lost herself in that intense stare. It was only a gentle cough from the nightly alicorn that prodded the pegasus to snap a salute and get running.
Luna stepped towards the captain and set her hoof between his withers. “You should listen to her, Barrier. This is one of her specialties, after all.”
“I know,” he replied in an apologetic voice, “and I know that this training is something that I need to move forward. We will continue our sessions later, but, right now, her teaching merits aren’t my top concern. Her spark hasn’t fully returned yet, and I need to do something about that—no matter how much it pains me.”
“So,” Bonecrusher grunted as she flanked Tail and matched the mare’s stride, “back from your special mission already?”
Tail glanced at the earth pony as the corner of her lips shaped a halfhearted smirk. “Special mission? I had a day of medical leave.”
“Guess that’s a step up from classified,” Bonecrusher scoffed, thrashing her tail aggressively as she galloped.
The pegasus flinched as a barb of regret snared her chest. “Look, Bonecrusher, I’m sorry about saying it like that. I didn’t know—”
“Ma’am, it’s ma’am, and I don’t care what you know or don’t know.” Rushed, harsh breaths carried the words to Tail’s ears as they rounded the corner of the track. “You still don’t belong here. The captain keeps saying it’s not his job to coddle us, but he’s been babying you since the first day.” A sadistic grin formed behind the rising wall of Bonecrusher’s anger. “Maybe one of these sessions, he’ll stop hiding the facts about your shit skills, and I’ll get to pummel you into the dirt.”
Whatever sigh Tail had attempted to force out, it was swamped by the heavy breathing her running had spurred. “What is your problem? He’s not babying me. He’s helping me learn—” The pegasus jumped to the side when she sensed Bonecrusher’s typical shoulder tackling move. She slid to a stop and watched as the lime-colored mare slammed her hooves into the track to do the same.
“My problem is that you’re a kiss-ass. The fact that I have to come in here every day and watch an officer with a distinguished reputation waste his time with a little bird—one who crumples after a bit of contact—disgusts me. I keep getting told to leave it be, or that there’s some legit reason for you being here. All I see is a shell who gets a couple days off after experiencing a little taste of what it’s actually like.”
“Bonecrusher! Indar! Pair off!” Barrier’s order pierced the escalating tension like a heated dagger through ice. “Tail! Get your flank over here! The two of us have a date, and I’m in the mood to make you submit.”
Tail squeaked and swung towards the captain’s location. Her wings spread slightly as disbelief listed her head to the left. Silence gripped her for but a moment, the ramifications of his word choice driving her heart to beat just a bit faster. “Sweety, that was the worst phrasing I have ever heard,” she mumbled quietly before trotting as commanded.
The earth pony snorted as Tail walked away. “Don’t think I’m done with you.” Her snarling tones drove the physicist to defensively flick her namesake, but the pegasus refused to look back.
Instead, she gazed ahead to her waiting trainer. “Captain, that wasn’t a very appropriate way to ask me out,” she said once she felt he was in earshot for her normal speaking volume. She stopped when she saw his scrunched muzzle and actually giggled when he sputtered something about Zacherle in response.
His hoof pressed against his forehead as a long exhale crept into existence and promptly faded. “We’re just going to pretend that didn’t happen, Cadet. You have way more important things to worry about anyway. You gave me all that time to watch your punishment run, and now my horn is feeling much better.” Barrier snickered and vanished from sight through a swirl of spellcast.
The mare yelped as the unicorn’s weight suddenly crashed upon her back. He snatched her foreleg quickly and jammed it to her barrel in a similar manner as he had done a few days prior. Tail’s frame buckled, though she managed to remain upright.
“What do you think you should do?” Barrier drilled her on the spot. “Ten seconds, or I’ll bring you to the ground and make your life a lot worse.”
Tail’s breathing hitched, but her mind dashed. Brute force wasn’t the answer for this one, so what was? Her hind leg shifted, trying to find additional support. How much time have I blown? The instant her hoof came into contact with Barrier’s, her eyes went wide. She bucked his hind leg on the same side of the hold and rolled her barrel as hard as she could.
As the clanging of their armors still lingered upon the wind, the pair tumbled to the grass, where Tail discovered that the pressure upon her foreleg had been released. Her pulse raced to an anxious tempo while she debated whether or not she had reached the correct decision, and she gulped when her captain asked, “Why’d you choose that?”
“I—um—well, forcing it was the wrong answer, and that hold puts a lot of strain on the leg. I needed to do something that wouldn’t apply a force in that plane, so I chose to roll. I needed to kick the hind leg because your base strength is higher.”
Tail stared at Barrier from her prone position as he rose to his hooves. He was peering right at her, gazing with an intensity that made Tail question just what he was up to. He’s doing it again: looking at you as though there’s something more to find.
“Starting position. We’re running the aileron roll again.” He left it at that, but the grimace etched upon his countenance—and the concern laced into his brow—spoke volumes.